Economist denounces 'automation anxiety'

Dystopian views of the devastating impact of automation on the future workforce ignore evidence that technology-related job losses have not changed in over two decades and only alarm a bewildered workforce, an ANU Forum heard today.

Speaking at the ANU Crawford Leadership Forum, economist Andrew Charlton said he hoped 2018 would prove to be the year of “peak automation anxiety”.

“When politicians talk about innovation, voters hear job losses. When business talks about disruption, workers hear retrenchment. When the media talks about technology, they talk about robots taking our jobs,” Dr Charlton said.

“These two perennial economic policy challenges - innovation and employment — have come into conflict in a way that is damaging the policy process.”

Dr Charlton, director of consultancy AlphaBeta was joined on a panel at the ANU Crawford Leadership Forum by Business Council of Australia head Jennifer Westacott, NAB chair Ken Henry and PwC partner Kate Eriksson.

At the core of their discussion was the conflicting narratives of innovation and jobs growth.

Static labour productivity figures, declining work hours and a vocational and skills sector that has failed to meet the needs of the emerging economy all featured in the 90-minute discussion.

Ms Westacott said a new social compact led by the business sector which addressed innovation, wages, skills and training, and the welfare system was now overdue.

Ms Eriksson said Australia must not be disconnected from global opportunities and must work on three key areas: developing industries around big and incredible ideas, such as space colonisation; increase engagement and participation in the global economy, especially for small businesses; and have policies and a national “brand” that is easy to understand and deal with. If it achieves those three things it will see innovation and investment boom, she said.

Dr Henry said the alarmist debates about the impact of automation on the economy were another symptom of the loss of trust in institutions and the media.

“The decline in trust is not limited to business. People trust politicians less than business, and media less than politicians. To a large extent, those three institutions have been engaging in an argument with each other which has reduced the level of trust in them, not built it,” Dr Henry said.

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